Postcolonial Text / Author

Between Piracy and Justice: Liminality in Maxwell Philip’s Emmanuel Appadocca

Gregory Wilson, St. John’s University

In his introduction to Maxwell Philip’s Emmanuel Appadocca; or, Blighted Life: A Tale of the Boucaneers, first published in 1854, William E. Cain attempts to place the nineteenth-century adventure novel in the context of contemporary works, arguing strongly that in addition to its kinship with other sea narratives of the period, it both is and is not an anti-slavery work. Commenting on the tension created by such a relationship, Cain suggests that:

... Emmanuel Appadocca ... is ... a different kind of book, one that both does and does not derive and develop its meanings from slavery and abolition. Philip’s novel is forthrightly antislavery in its implications, and its potent critique would be missed if today’s readers were unaware of its historical contexts. Yet Emmanuel Appadocca is more metaphysical than this designation implies, for its intent is to dramatize issues of philosophy, ethics, and religion that are only partially tied to slavery ... Emmanuel Appadocca is everywhere “about” slavery, yet is at the same time distanced from it (xxxvii).

As Cain goes on to comment, Maxwell Philip might easily have “saturated” the novel with references to the evils of slavery and the urgent need for worldwide abolition; in doing this, he would have placed his work squarely in the slave narrative tradition, which had already gained widespread acceptance in the literary marketplace through the publication of works such as Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; particularly in light of Philip’s preface, in which he claims to have written his novel in “ ... a high pitch of indignant excitement” over the treatment of slave children by their slave owners, to not directly attack slavery in a similar way to his philosophical predecessors seems an odd decision (xxxvii). But Philip does not do so, and instead maintains an uneasy balance between the book’s implied subject of slavery and resistance and its explicit premise of being an adventure story and, to a very limited extent, a philosophical treatise on an alternative system of laws. Cain ultimately suggests that Philip adopted this difficult method because of his interests in philosophy and classical allusions, which would have made a pure anti-slavery narrative too limiting a format, but I think in advancing this possibility Cain misses the dominant setting of Philip’s work itself: the ship and its relationship to land and the sea.

In the remainder of this brief essay, I will argue, following Victor Turner’s definition, that this setting is a liminal one, located both physically in the margin between parts of land and politically and philosophically between places where laws of semantic, not natural origins apply. Setting the novel in this liminal context allows Philip to challenge traditional premises of law and autonomy, attacking the principle of slavery and racism at its foundations, without polarizing the novel and alienating a large section of the audience to which he must ultimately appeal if he is to be successful. This essay will begin with a brief definition of Victor Turner’s concept of liminality, discuss the significance of this concept in the context of postcolonial studies, and then after a brief summary of Emmanuel Appadocca demonstrate the physical and political/philosophical elements of liminality in Philip’s book, concluding with a quick assessment of the effectiveness of his choice.

In his chapter “The Anthropology of Performance,” from the book of the same name published in 1986, anthropologist Victor Turner defines the concept of liminality as a “betwixt-and-between condition often involving seclusion from the everyday scene” (101). In anthropological contexts, the term often refers to a time between periods of life, in many cases physically replicated in the settings for rituals of passage. Turner describes several examples of this replication later:

Rituals of the second type, public in general orientation from the first, have their liminality in public places. The village greens or the squares of the city are not abandoned but rather ritually transformed ... [during] the time, for example, of Mardi-Gras or the Carnival-Careme ... For a while almost anything goes: taboos are lifted, fantasies are enacted, indicative mood behavior is reversed; the low are exalted and the mighty abased ... Ambiguity reigns; people and public policies may be judged sceptically in relation to deep values; the vices, follies, stupidities, and abuses of contemporary holders of high political, economic, or religious status may be satirized, ridiculed, or contemned ... or these personages may be rebuked for gross failures in commonsense (101-102).

Liminality, then, refers to a state of existence in the margin, within the boundaries between one condition or place and another. It is not static, but is constantly in flux, shifting rapidly and adapting to changing conditions and circumstances; and further, by definition liminality implies a process of movement from one state to another. Within this chaotic environment, physical, political, and philosophical criticisms of the status quo can be initiated without fear of reprisal from the rest of society; in essence, liminal space is that region where societal norms can be most powerfully and effectively questioned.

This idea has been considered significant in the context of postcolonial studies for some time. Pnina Werbner comments that “cultural hybridity, liminality, and transgression have dominated recent writings in cultural and postcolonial studies” (134). Rey Chow takes a similar view, saying that over the past few years, “rather than understanding identity in terms of stable reference points, the theorists of these notions [hybridity, performativity, migrancy, diaspora and so on] have collectively shifted the conceptualisation of identity to an epistemological paradigm in which it is liminality, instability, impurity, movement and fluidity that inform the formation of identities” (166). This suggests that the emphasis on marginalized cultures and traditionally silenced figures, so fundamental to postcolonial studies, has naturally led to an interest in the quality of the spaces within which those figures reside.

Such spaces are inevitably located between more stable identity formulations, and grant those who can function within such in-between places surprising authority, or perhaps more accurately a kind of anti-authority; Werbner follows Homi Bhabha (who discusses this idea in more detail in his 1994 book The Location of Culture) in suggesting that these “liminal spaces ... [are] betwixt-and-between tropes that render authority structures ambivalent” (141). Considering the character Appadocca’s betwixt-and-between status, as I will address later in the article, this is indeed a productive angle from which to view his actions and their uniquely ungrounded, fluid, and uncertain legal and philosophical status. And in a broader sense, this has implications for literary study in general, since as Chow points out the practices of exploring postcolonial work in the ways listed above “are drastically transforming knowledge by stubbornly focusing our attention on what has hitherto been cast outside the boundaries of what can be known” (166). Of course, Turner’s definition of liminality is anthropological in nature, not literary; however, it seems instructive that the title of the book in which he develops this definition is The Anthropology of Performance. Upon close examination, it seems clear that Philip is engaged in just such a project, set in liminal space, in the writing of Emmanuel Appadocca.

Emmanuel Appadocca is set in the Caribbean and follows the journey of its title character, a mulatto who was abandoned as a child by his white father James Willmington. Willmington, a sugar planter from Trinidad who impregnated and then abandoned Appadocca’s black mother (who was also his slave upon the plantation), is captured while on a trip to Bristol by a pirate ship known only as The Black Schooner. Upon boarding the vessel, Willmington discovers that its captain is none other than his son Appadocca, who in his youth had managed to (with the assistance of his mother) attain his freedom and in fact attend the University of Paris. Appadocca’s mother’s death while he was at school had led to the revelation that his father had not, as he had always been told, died when he was a child, but was in fact still alive and well, and Appadocca had written him for monetary assistance. When no response came, Appadocca had grown bitter and after a series of journeys had recruited a crew of his former classmates from the university, who were now living in San Domingo, for a life of piracy. He had sailed to Trinidad, discovered his father’s plans for travel, and waylaid the ship so as to capture his father.

Despite Willmington’s pleas for mercy, Appadocca casts him adrift as punishment for his sins, and sails on to St. Thomas to sell his pirated goods. Disguising himself as a merchant, he goes ashore, but is recognized and captured by his father who was lucky enough to be rescued by another passing ship after being cast adrift. Placed in a ship on its way back to Trinidad where Appadocca will be tried for his crimes, he manages one evening to escape and make his way to a nearby island, where after some difficult days he is reunited with Lorenzo, the first officer of The Black Schooner who has been secretly following Appadocca’s prison ship for several days. Back on board his ship, Appadocca plans and carries out a daring raid on Willmington’s plantation, and succeeds in capturing his father once again. However, a hurricane blows by the island soon after they have returned to The Black Schooner, and the ship is destroyed — along with Willmington, who is forgotten in the torture chamber below deck as the crew evacuates the ship.

His ship having been demolished and his vow of vengeance against his father fulfilled, Appadocca throws himself to his death off of a cliff on the edge of the island to conclude the main plot of the book. To a degree, the story described above is a rather standard pirate story, as indeed the subtitle of the book suggests. But a closer examination reveals that Maxwell Philip’s tale resonates with a much more complex meaning and philosophy than that of a simple adventure tale, and as I argue below, his use of liminal space is a significant part of this more complicated subtext.

First, the book takes place largely on board The Black Schooner, a pirate ship afloat quite literally in the margins between countries, where boundaries are vague and difficult to define, and official jurisdiction is greatly limited. This affords the ship a great deal of flexibility; it can essentially sail where it wishes, and can visit any port (so long as its captain exercises cautionand protects it from actual contact with the land.[1] Moreover, standard anxieties of owning land, harvesting food, and defending territory become irrelevant in this setting; the ship is the crewmen’s country, and its mobility ensures that they are not so much nomads or displaced wanderers as representatives of their own “national” identity (and Philip’s idea of alternative laws, which I will consider briefly later in this article).

Philip expresses this sense of physical liminality throughout the book; Appadocca’s invention of a strange mirror device, for example, allows his ship to see other ships and objects far past the range of normal human vision while remaining well out of their sight: in this unequal viewing relationship, his ship literally exists in the margins of light and the visual field (193). When Lorenzo is trying to learn more information on the condition of his captured commander, he disguises his ship so as to trick the crew of the English man o’ war that holds his superior, as this passage describes:

A shrill sound was heard, the apparent sides of the distressed barque opened, the stern fell heavily into the water, the racketty yards and old ropes went over the side, and from amidst the wreck of the skeleton ship, the Black Schooner sprang forth as she felt the power of her snow-white sails, which, with the rapidity of lightning, had now clothed her tall masts (149).

Here, the real ship exists “amidst” the wreck of another, between the sides of its visible hull; and here again the actual object exists in the margins, in the liminal space between the “apparent” indicators of a vessel. Further, the textual force of the event clearly lies with the object of liminal space, which “spr[i]ng[s] forth ... with the rapidity of lightning” into view, though only temporarily; the speed of the vessel ensures its quick escape. In these and many other cases, Philip sets his schooner and its crew — who rely on stealth, deception, and concealment — in the physical uncertainty of liminal space.

But if physical elements of liminality are important in Emmanuel Appadocca, political and philosophical ones are even more critical. As I have already established, the Black Schooner is itself afloat in the liminal space of the sea, and as Appadocca makes clear in his speech to his neglectful father, this space enables a different set of laws to be enforced:

“By what laws?” inquired the captain.

“By the laws of the land,” answered Willmington.

A sneer was to be traced on the rude lineaments of every pirate’s face, when this answer was given.

“Look up there, man,” said the captain, as he pointed to the black flag that was floating gracefully from the half lowered gaff, “while that flies there, there is no law on board this schooner save mine and great Nature’s. Look around you, on the right and on the left, you see those who know no other laws but these two, and who are ready to enforce them. Look still further around, you see but a waste of water, with no tribunals at hand, in which complaints may be heard, or by which grievances may be redressed. Place no hope, therefore, on the “laws of the land” (65).

In this exchange, Appadocca immediately establishes the supremacy of a different set of laws on board the vessel; as Selwyn Cudjoe comments in the Afterword to the 1997 edition of Emmanuel Appadocca, “Because organized piracy presumed its own values, ... and ... inverted the notions of justice sanctioned by the civil state”that is, the purported respect for private property (which included slaves)”it offered Phillip an apt metaphor to advance an alternative system of values that differed from that of the slave-owning class (257). What is important in this quote from Philip’s novel, though, is the setting in which this alternative system can be accepted; throughout the excerpt, Appadocca’s language is that of liminal space. He encourages his father to look around him at the unyielding barrier of crew members between him and some means of escape, and then asks him to look beyond that barrier to the natural one of the sea, surrounding the boat, where there are no courts that could hear his plea.

The implication is twofold: first, that Willmington is twice surrounded by barriers which are themselves physically located in liminal space, which as I have suggested gives them more power in the context of this novel than they might otherwise receive; but more importantly, that since Willmington is on a ship which is also in a liminal state, between ports and subject to no landlocked laws, other law — the alternative system of laws mentioned above — can be applied fairly, and with moral legitimacy, in this case. This is a critical construction for Philip to use, since it prevents us from rejecting the behavior of either Appadocca or the pirates as illegal from the outset; in this setting, we are forced to consider the rationality of Appadocca’s case, not simply the societally accepted legal standards that might be applicable to it.

Philip is at great pains throughout his text to put Appadocca’s controversial decisions and actions in this liminal setting, where he can escape the more conventional objections that would be likely to be raised to them; the only exception to this rule is Willmington’s kidnapping from his home on land towards the end of the book, but even here he is not harmed, simply brought back to Appadocca’s ship (his liminal space) for punishment. Ultimately, Willmington dies on board the doomed schooner, but its liminal condition forestalls extensive recriminations; we may disagree with his destruction, but are certainly less inclined to reject it entirely. It may also be fair to point out that Willmington’s injustice to Appadocca’s mother, and his subsequent abandonment of his son, did not take place in a similarly liminal state, but on a plantation, subject to all the “laws of the land” Willmington is so anxious to remind Appadocca of years later during the “trial” on the schooner. These circumstances may also support Appadocca’s actions.

Yet despite Philip’s efforts, his mid-18th century audience may ultimately still have felt troubled by the decisions Appadocca makes during the course of the novel, and this in turn raises the question of whether the author’s use of liminal space is effective in this context. Certainly any pirate tale will concern ships that are physically found on the margins of society, manned by crews on the margin of moral behavior, yet many standard societal mores of the 1800s would still have rejected piracy as an inherently immoral action.

There are two responses to this point: first, neither Philip’s contemporaries nor modern readers were/are themselves in this liminal space. Both groups’ willing participation in the social contract put them squarely within the boundaries of a legal framework, and consequently, they are subject to its strictures in a way Appadocca is not — but if this seems unfair, it may be helpful to remember that they were not excluded from society in the way Philip demonstrates that Appadocca is. Second and importantly from a postcolonial context, Appadocca is from the beginning representative of Turner’s liminality: he is a mulatto, of mixed parentage, and is therefore himself in the “betwixt-and-between” position which Turner outlines. He does not completely belong in any part of what was at the time a socially stratified society. Indeed, it seems likely that Philip, himself a mulatto, had this sense of alienation in mind constantly, particularly after he began to be regularly passed over for legal and political posts he was clearly the most qualified for; and though he was a lawyer dealing in the “laws of the land” that Appadocca disdainfully rejects, it seems reasonable to assume that Philip could have wished for laws based more on natural logic and less on the bigoted and ignorant principles by which he was himself forced to abide. Indeed, as Selwyn Cudjoe comments in the preface to the 1997 edition of Emmanuel Appadocca, “ ... Phillip always rued the fact that he never received the recognition he deserved and would have received had he been white” (xii). Writing this story gave Philip the opportunity to comment on such practices, and his use of liminal space made it possible for him to do so without having to worry about endangering his careerwith a potentially subversive work; in that context, it seems that using liminal space was an effective method indeed.

Emmanuel Appadocca is first and foremost an adventure story, intended as a seafaring romance and source of entertainment for its readers. But Maxwell Philip, an exceptionally able man restricted by his “racial liminality” from rising to the level he should have attained, clearly wished to do more than simply entertain in his writing: he wanted to instruct, and to give his readers the opportunity to think outside the bounds of normal legal discourse about serious moral concerns. By setting his novel on a pirate ship, Philip was able to use, a hundred years before Victor Turner defined it, the liminal space represented in both the physical and political/philosophical elements of the buccaneer story. It is to his credit that he managed to do so without losing the entertaining portions of his tale as well, so that at the end of Emmanuel Appadocca, we find ourselves transplanted into our own liminal condition” between the adventure novel and the morality play, betwixt a light entertaining romance and a serious novel of intellectual weight. Following Turner’s idea, it is in that margin that our most productive thoughts, and most striking changes in opinion, are able to occur.



Interestingly, the ship loses all its power and is completely destroyed at the instant when it touches the land and is run aground at the novel’s end — Appadocca himself attempts to escape this contact in his suicide after the ship’s destruction, throwing himself off the cliff into the pounding waters of, again, the marginal space of the sea.  Even this escape is denied him, though, as his body is retrieved and finally buried in the land — laid to final, fixed, and societally sanctioned (and therefore perhaps representative of the failure of his alternative principles of law?) rest.

Works Cited

Cain, William E. Introduction to Emmanuel Appadocca; or, Blighted Life: A Tale of the Boucaneers, by Maxwell Philip, ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Amherst, MA, UMASS Press, 1997, pp. xv-lv.

Chow, Rey. “The postcolonial difference: lessons in cultural legitimation.” Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1998), pp. 161-169.

Philip, Maxwell. Emmanuel Appadocca; or, Blighted Life. A Tale of the Boucaneers, ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Amherst, MA, UMASS Press, 1997.

Turner, Victor. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1986.

Werbner, Pnina. “The Limits of Cultural Hybridity: On Ritual Monsters, Poetic Licence and Contested Postcolonial Purifications.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 7, Issue 1 (March 2001), pp. 133-152.